This story was originally published Nov. 11, 2020, following a conversation with Charley Pride. Pride died Saturday, Dec. 12. 2020, of complications from COVID-19.
Country music legend Charley Pride will be honored with the Country Music Association’s 2020 Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award at what’s considered the biggest night in country music.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to try to get a number of 'em but I’ll take this one, too,” Pride said from his home in Dallas.
The award celebrates a five-decade career and a man who made history by becoming the genre's first Black superstar. Pride, 86, just sees himself as a man who wanted to sing and play music.
“Well, I’m gonna tell you the truth. I grew up in Mississippi and my family and I, we moved to Montana. And we didn't realize until it was pointed out to us that what you just mentioned was the case. It was mentioned to me, but I always remembered and grew up in segregation and that sort of thing. But I always thought I was one of the best Americans that could be. And I still think that. I'm a staunch American, and I think that helped me a lot,” Pride said.
Pride was born in Sledge, Mississippi, the son of a sharecropper, and spent time helping his dad work the cotton farm.
“My plan, let me tell you, well, while I was picking cotton beside my dad, I said, ‘Jackie Robinson went to the major leagues,' and I said, 'Here’s my way to get out of these cotton fields.’ So, that was my plan. That's what I was gonna do. And so, I tried," he explained.
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The bio on Pride’s website says by the age of 16, he emerged as a talented baseball player and follows the path into the Negro American League, Minor League and Semi-Pro baseball.
“Everything I did, I wanted to do good. I wanted to be good or better than anybody else. It was no ego thing; that's the way I was built. So, all of that happened. I was a good ballplayer, but I didn't make it. I didn't go around regretting it. I’m just glad, like I said a moment ago, that I was blessed with a voice to be able to do what I’ve done. and I think all my colleagues that have been in this business, I think they all really, I really believe, they all love me and, actually, I think all of them was really pulling for me to make it,” Pride said.
For many years, though, baseball kept pulling at Pride. In between there were two years in the Army, hard work in a smelter, then finally a sign that country music was in the cards after all.
Country singers Red Sovine and Red Foley were in Montana doing a show and with the help of a local disc jockey, Pride went backstage to meet them.
“Picked up a guitar and started singing and the promoter says, ‘Would you like to do a song on the show? and I said, 'Just ask.’ So, I did a couple of songs, one was an Elvis and a Hank Williams song. So when I did those two songs, the both of 'em looked at one another, Foley and Red Sovine says, ‘I ain't never seen nothing like this before, but you ought to go to Nashville.' And when I went to Nashville and finally got a chance to put me in a studio. I’d never been in a studio before in my life. and my first single was called, 'The Snakes Crawl at Night,'" Pride recalled.
Pride’s bio says, “The Snakes Crawl at Night" and "Before I Met You," set the groundwork for “Just Between You and Me,” which caught fire in 1967, breaking into the Top-10 Country chart and garnering Charley his first Grammy nomination. What happened next is Country Music history.
Charley Pride quickly became Country Music’s first black superstar. Between 1967 and 1987, he amassed no fewer than 52 Top-10 Country hits and went on to sell tens of millions of records worldwide.
Pride’s success paved a path for other Black artists to find their voice, too.
“I don't deny that I probably help a lot. You mentioned Jackie Robinson and he was a pioneer and that sort of thing, but I didn't go into country music thinking about being a pioneer or anything like that. It just turned out to be something like that,” Pride said.
Jimmie Allen and Darius Rucker are among those with whom Pride has spent time times and shared stories but hesitates to advise.
“Well, I don’t give advice. I’ll discuss whatever you want to discuss. and I’ll give you my opinion,” Pride said. Pride’s days of radio dominance are past but he still performs on tour and he has never stopped recording music. There’ve been multiple studio albums including "Music in my Heart" in July 2017.
Colleagues seek him out, too. Pride joined Rucker in Allen’s song, "Why Things Happen." And, he sings a duet with Garth Brooks in the song, "Where the Cross Don’t Burn," on Brooks’ album, "FUN," to be released on Nov. 20.
“People say, you sound the same, and I appreciate hearing that. I don't think I sound that good but they still want to see me,” Pride smiled.